Traveling with kids is the most unnatural thing in the world. After any vacation with our three kids — a toddler, a 9-year-old, and a 13-year-old — I am half dead and half severely aggravated. Never again, I always mutter, when we straggle in from France, California, Florida, or the grandparents’ in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, or Princeton, New Jersey. Yet the next thing I know, we’re out the door with the urban mountain buggy and the travel crib and each kid’s personal bag and each kid’s piece of luggage and our own stuff crammed into a shared suitcase.
“Why do you keep doing this to yourself?” a friend asked me.
Well, my wife and I have always traveled. One year, before children, we sold all of our belongings and spent three months each in Thailand, France, Mexico, and Guatemala. Several summers we lived in vineyards and on both coasts of Portugal. Without kids, these trips were so serene I could focus on little things like the working of a parasite within the lining of my stomach or how my seven-hundredth game of solitaire was progressing.
With children, there’s none of that useless introspection or awful idle time. On planes, in cars, at resorts, in rental houses, or rushing through museums, we attend to the range of their culinary appetites and the schedules of their varying digestive tracts and the intransigence of their capacity to take in more than one new thing — any new thing — per day.
“There’s no good food in France!” my son screamed one day last summer. And I thought, I am spending how much money for this? Thanks to Jacob, I now know all the chicken-tender-serving restaurants between Nice and Cannes, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and between Palm Beach and Miami. For Jacob, when we travel, it’s chicken tenders or famine.
For Benjamin, the toddler, lately it’s “I like a present.” So wherever we are when he wants one — the gloomy rest stop by the side of I-95 outside of Wilmington, Delaware, or the ridiculously overpriced resort of St. Tropez — he gets a present.
And Cade, our 13-year-old, only wants to know when the “free” hours on her cell phone are so that she can call home and complain to all her friends how bored she is. “I am sooo bored,” she whined from the Riviera. “I am really beyond bored,” she opined from Mendocino, California. I wanted to grab the phone from her and throw it into the Pacific, but I didn’t dare. It was the only thing that pacified her. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Air France held up a flight while a steward took her blood pressure and determined whether she really could fly in such a hostile, upset state.
We have raced through L.A.’s Getty and Paris’s Orsay with these children. We have paddled the canals of Amsterdam and the Russian River in California with them. We know the best brand of disposable diapers in France, England, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Our children have dined on Dunkin’ Donuts off the Ramblas in Barcelona, and they’ve lunched at Baskin-Robbins in London. If we stray into anything resembling real cuisine, we doom ourselves to humiliation, ostracization, and worse.
For years Jacob inflicted the most pain, but lately the toddler has begun to carry his weight. At a posh, crowded Italian restaurant on Union Street in San Francisco this past summer, he snatched up a salt shaker, chucked it at the plate holding the olive oil for the dipping of the gourmet bread, broke the plate in two, and thus sent olive oil all over the pristine white tablecloth. My wife turned to me and through gritted teeth said, “Get him out of here.” The toddler and I passed the rest of the meal at a lovely convenience store attached to the Shell gas station down the street.
Of traveling, our children have this to say: They hate the food, they hate the traffic, they hate any mode of transport, and they hate everything but the gift shops at most museums.
People keep telling me that when the kids get to their 20s they’ll be thanking us, but what if I don’t live that long?
“Well, heck,” our neighbor says, “you’re really not doing it for them anyway, are you?”
You’re telling me I’m selfish, I want to say, but I can only glare at him. For it’s true that we’re so afraid to tell the children about our next vacation that we have a code name for the whole enterprise and we only speak of it in whispers late at night. Because once word leaks out, Cade will talk about her “constitutional right” to remain at home, Jacob will work himself into a teary rage, and the toddler, bewildered but already in on the mutiny, will skip around the house, trolling, “I like a present. I like a present.”
So why do we keep doing this? To get away from the mail and the phone and the obligations of ordinary life. To get beyond the daily ease of our small-town existence. To visit favorite places and places we’ve never been before. To see how far the kids can push us before we turn on each other (for it’s a given we’ll turn on them). To challenge all of us, not only in the art of placation or accommodation but also in the art of simple endurance.
So, we won’t get any rest on this upcoming trip, and we won’t get any relaxation, either. But when we recall those years of traveling before children, those nights of reading long novels and staring into space or out to sea or at our own indulged selves, we know one simple, essential fact: We won’t be indulged or bored now. Our kids will make sure of that. And our life together, boiled down to the essential struggle to get along and keep moving until we arrive again safely at home, will make us feel — oddly enough — even more alive.
Fred Leebron is the author of three novels, most recently In the Middle of All This.